Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Welcome to Shelbyville: Loving, Fearing Thy Neighbors

• May 22, 2011 • 4:00 AM

In the documentary film “Welcome to Shelbyville,” a small Tennessee town deals with an influx of residents from Somalia.

In news headlines and broadcast bulletins, the word “Somali” is inevitably followed by a dread-inducing plural noun: “pirates” or “warlords” or “terrorists.” So it’s no surprise that natives of the war-ravaged East African country of Somalia are viewed with fear and suspicion by many, if not most, Americans.

When significant numbers of Somali refugees moved to Shelbyville, Tenn., (population 16,000) to work at the nearby Tyson Foods processing plant, the town’s residents reacted with deep suspicion. “We don’t know what diseases they have,” a former mayor frets in the opening minutes of the new documentary film Welcome to Shelbyville. Intensifying his fear is the fact the newcomers are Muslims, which in his view means: “They want to kill us.”

That lack of political correctness makes Shelbyville an ideal setting for a film about immigration and assimilation. When a feisty black resident named Beverly Hewitt visits the home of a Somali immigrant family, she minces no words, informing them, “Most folks think you’re plum mean,” and asking, “You’re not terrorists, right?” In Shelbyville, unspoken fears get spoken and sometimes even assuaged.

Kim Snyder’s documentary, which premieres on PBS May 24 as part of the Independent Lens series, provides a mosaic-like portrait of a town in transition. The film begins just before the election of Barack Obama, which excites some residents and worries others. But their immediate concern is the Somali families who have recently arrived, unannounced. Legal residents who came to the U.S. as part of a refugee-resettlement program, they found temporary homes in Nashville before migrating to this rural area in search of blue-collar jobs.

“I always imagined America as a place where I could work, find a better education and live peacefully,” says Somali Hawo Siyard, sounding strikingly similar to the immigrants who came before her. One longtime local who can sympathize is Miguel Gonzalez, a Mexican native (and American citizen) who moved to the area years earlier to work in an auto plant. His family wasn’t welcomed with open arms, either.

Gonzalez and Hewitt are both part of a grassroots organization called Welcoming America that works with communities to foster better relations between locals and their foreign-born neighbors. The film chronicles attempts to begin and sustain a dialogue between newcomers and old-timers. This effort involves occasional field trips: Shelbyville calls itself the “Walking Horse Capital of the World,” and one amusingly incongruous image finds colorfully dressed, headscarf-wearing Somali women taking in their first horse show.

One problem, at least as the Somalis perceive it, is the local newspaper; they view its coverage as slanted against them, emphasizing the negative. In a decidedly uncomfortable scene, reporter Brian Mosely — internal fight-or-flight system fully engaged, by the look of his awkward body language — visits a Somali home to explain his role and better understand their viewpoint. We later learn his coverage of the controversy has won awards.

“This is a lot of change for a small town to grapple with,” Snyder says. “I can understand why it’s tough. They have no context for what’s happening. There isn’t anybody going to these places and saying, ‘Here’s a little background about these people who are coming.’ Hopefully the film will help in this regard. It’s being shown in a lot of communities that mirror the demographics of Shelbyville.”

The hourlong film spends a lot of time with the town’s religious leaders, who are trying to help congregants reconcile their faith (which instructs them to love their new neighbors) with their fears. The most enthusiastic group is the Baptists, which seems odd until you realize they view these newcomers as potential converts. “The mission field has been brought to us!” one enthusiastic believer declares.

Watch the full episode. See more Independent Lens.

“There are a lot of perspectives in this little town,” Snyder notes. “This [demographic shift] entails some loss for most parties, but also potential opportunities. How you define those losses and opportunities are different for each group.” That understanding is shared by the local sheriff, who seems bemused as he points out that his tiny town has become “one of the most culturally diverse places in America.” Try to imagine one of his Civil Rights-era predecessors saying the same, and you realize we really have made some progress.

“I think it is a hopeful film,” Snyder says. “I’m even more hopeful after seeing how it’s being used. Some people in Corvallis, Ore., wrote me after the local mosque was bombed and asked if they could show the film there. There have been so many reactions like that, where it’s been shown in places where there is tension [between locals and newcomers], or where they simply say, ‘This is our story.'”

And that reaction isn’t exclusive to the United States. Snyder has shown the film to receptive audiences in European cities grappling with immigration. And as part of a State Department program designed to expose people around the world to American ideals and culture, she brought the documentary to Nigeria last August.

“The first time I saw it with an audience was in Kano, a majority-Muslim city in northern Nigeria,” she said. “People were so appreciative of the film. Christian-Muslim killings had taken place in a neighboring town two weeks prior. From their perspective, the fact the people of Shelbyville weren’t turning to violence meant a lot. They commented, ‘Look what this small town was able to do!'”

Whether you’re in urban Nigeria or rural Tennessee (which was Klan country only a half-century ago), it’s easy to caricature newly arrived immigrants. But it’s also easy to stereotype longtime locals who fear for the cohesion of their communities. Welcome to Shelbyville avoids falling into either trap, portraying all its characters with sensitivity and empathy. “I hear they’re very aggressive,” one local man says of the Somalis. “But maybe a year ago, they were fighting for food. They had to be aggressive.”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.


December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.


December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.


December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.


December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.


December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.


December 15 • 4:00 PM

When Charter Schools Are Non-Profit in Name Only

Some charters pass along nearly all their money to for-profit companies hired to manage the schools. It’s an arrangement that’s raising eyebrows.


December 15 • 2:00 PM

No More Space Race

A far cry from the fierce Cold War Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, exploration in the 21st century is likely to be a much more globally collaborative project.


December 15 • 12:32 PM

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.


December 15 • 12:00 PM

Gluttony and Global Warming: We’re Eating Ourselves to a Warmer Planet

Forget your car. Our obsession with beef and dairy has a far more devastating effect on the climate.


December 15 • 10:00 AM

The 2016 Presidential Race Has Already Started

And this is the most exciting part.


December 15 • 8:00 AM

The Second Life of Old iPods

Why is it that old iPods are suddenly cool—and pricey again?


December 15 • 6:00 AM

The Lifelong Consequences of Rape

The long-term psychological and physical effects of the experience are devastating. And they’re likely exacerbated by the shame our culture insists on perpetuating.


December 15 • 4:00 AM

Mating Mindset Interferes With Attempts to Stop Smoking

Taiwanese researchers find photos of attractive women put men in an immediate-gratification state of mind.


December 15 • 2:00 AM

Where Innovation Thrives

Innovation does not require an urban area or a suburban area—it can happen in the city or in a small town. What it requires is open knowledge networks and the movement of people from different places.


December 13 • 9:18 AM

The Damage Done: Can Distance Between a Mother and Daughter Be the Best Solution?

“The devastation kept me away, but the guilt kept bringing me back, ready for another round.”


December 12 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross Has Been Serially Misleading About Where Donors’ Dollars Are Going

The charity has become closely associated with one remarkable number in recent years: 91. That’s the percentage of donor dollars that goes toward services, according to organization leaders. But it’s unclear where that number comes from.


December 12 • 2:00 PM

It’s Time to Reclaim the Word ‘Recovery’

It’s empowering to say publicly that you are in recovery from addiction. But for some, recovery is a members-only club for people who are totally abstinent. That leaves most of us out in the cold.


Follow us


Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

There’s More Than One Way to Be Good at Math

Mathematical ability isn’t one single skill set; there are indeed many ways to be “good at math,” research shows.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.